I’d appreciate if anyone could give me their [sic] opinion

Dave’s post on grammar made me think. (Dave, I’ll get you for that. It hurts.) I’d been a law school administrator in recent years before going back this year to teaching college writing (supposedly I’m retired, but I’ve been working part-time at four different schools) and I’ve begun to wonder if I should just stop correcting certain grammar errors that still drive me crazy.

When I first taught, in the ’70s, I used to correct “who” and “whom” all the time. I stopped. Now I correct only when students use “whom” when they mean “who,” not the other way around. I still use it sometimes because I’m old, but basically I favor whom‘s doom.

But I’ve still been correcting the pronoun shift in the title of this post: a writer will start with the singular anyone, everyone, someone, anybody, or the ubiquitous a person and then she will invariably use the plural personal pronoun they, them, their later in the sentence.

Should I just leave it alone?

How about the use of you in a sentence like this:

In my high school you had to work very hard to get good grades.

I always write something like, “I didn’t go to your high school. Use you only when addressing the reader.”

(I also would like to have a quarter for every time I correct the placement of the close quotation mark and the period or the incorrect use of its, it’s, its’ [sic] and i’ts [really sic].)

We’re talking about formal expository essays, business letters, argumentative writing, not narratives. Am I being an old fart to correct a person/their and the general you?


  1. Well I believe that writing has changed, just as our speaking as changed. As more and more slang finds its way into our vernacular, more and more slang is acceptable in writing. Do you understand what your students mean? Are they getting their point across? If so, that–to me–is what is more important.

    Granted college is different from middle school, but I firmly believe grammar should come last and–if need be–looked over to a point. Obviously if the sentence is written and you can’t even undersatnd it because of poor grammar, then it needs to be dealt with, no matter what grade you’re in. But, when working with the age group i work with, I overlook a lot of grammar in favor or good ideas that come across on the paper.

  2. I think we are beginning to see a shift in academic writing and I see more narrative and conversational tones, at least in the better expository essays. The personalism that “you” connotes is greater than “a person/their” and that seems to carry more weight these days. In those context, I believe, we should be more loose.

    Then again, I am not a top shelf writer.

  3. The Language has Changed. And no matter how we may feel about the new third-person-neutral-singular pronoun, which sounds too much like the identical third-personal-plural for our comfort, it is fact.

    The proof?

    We were shooting a promotional video in our living room last month and my five-year-old interrupted, mid-take. She was outraged that a sentence that had begun “Imagine the look on a child’s face” concluded “when he.”

    “The child could be a girl!” my daughter insisted.

    She wanted the pronoun to be “their.”

    If a little girl whose favorite color is pink and who wants to grow up to be a princess, a ballerine or a star insists that “their” is the gender-neutral pronoun — well, this doting father is not about to argue.

  4. Dave, I can often understand what they mean, but sometimes I have to sit there for a while and try to figure it out.

    Take the issue of what we call “sentence boundaries.” I tell the students — at one community college, they are taking a departmental final this week (not graded by me) — that this is really important, that if they show a pattern of syntax errors (fragments, fused sentences and comma splices), they’re probably not going to get a better grade than a C from the graders. (I grade students other than my own in a group session of holistic grading in which we read a paper and assign it a grade based on a rubric on which we are normed. I’ve been doing this, like most composition teachers do, since the 1970s, at a variety of schools in three states on levels from freshman to incoming law students, in a process that’s pretty standard. Meaning, of course, is the most important issue. More than anything else, I find that I have to stress the need to develop and organize their essays, but grammar, syntax and mechanics also do count . We look for patterns of errors.

    But back to meaning and syntax errors. I’d still understand your comment if you had written:

    Well I believe that writing has changed, just as our speaking as changed as more and more slang finds its way into our vernacular, more and more slang is acceptable in writing, do you understand what your students mean; are they getting their point across, if so, that to me is what is more important.

    Granted college is different from middle school, I firmly believe grammar should come last and–if need be–looked over to a point, obviously if the sentence is written; and you can’t even undersatnd it; because of poor grammar then it needs to be dealt with no matter what grade you’re in. But, when working with the age group i work with; I overlook a lot of grammar in favor or good ideas that come across on the paper.

    …but is it just as well-written?

  5. In elementary school (I’m on sabbatical from teaching 4th grade because I need the rest), the last several years has seen a shift from teaching mechanics to teaching creative writing. The idea has come about because many educational gurus believe “drill & kill” grammar exercises stifle creativity. I’m all for children exploring imagination through writing, but I have noticed that not learning the rules before breaking them results in a lot of bad writing. What’s the point in being creative when the final product is so unreadable it can’t be taken seriously? Somewhere in the middle, there must be a happy medium between writing well and writing creatively.

  6. What I do, of course, is tell people to avoid “a person” and write “people”; avoid “a student” and write “students”; avoid “a lawyer” and write “lawyers.” Replacing the singular “general” noun with the plural obviates the problem — which, you’re right, often comes from trying to avoid sexist writing. However, I can tell you it existed when I started teaching writing in 1975, when the handbooks didn’t have sections on avoiding sexist writing.

    When I was a law student in the early 1990s, I noticed that most of our professors would, when they spoke of “a lawyer” or “a judge,” then use the pronoun “she” or “her,” as in “A lawyer must zealously represent her clients.” It’s a problem in English. Notice in my post, “a writer will start with…and then she…”

    Ordinarily I would have written “writers” but I was trying to emphasize my point.

  7. I was a writer-in-residence in Rockland County schools under a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts in 1988-89. I’d never taught elementary school kids before, and since I was working on an M.A. in computing and education at Teachers College, I took a course in Teaching Writing by the maven in “whole language” teaching, Lucy McCormick Calkins.

    Most of the elementary schools there used the “whole language” approach: invented spelling, no editing, and the rest. I was a believer. But the tide turned against “whole language” in the late ’90s, so I’m surprised to hear from Marydell that it’s still pervasive in some elementary schools.

    But now I am getting the contemporaries of my 1988 third-graders in college, and they have writing problems that *might* be attributable to the way they were taught as kids. I haven’t explored the research, though, so I’d be hesitant to base a conclusion on my impressions.

  8. Funny you should mention TC. A few of my teaching friends received their MAs today, and I have just returned home from the graduation festivities.

    Whole language is not only still pervasive in elementary schools; it is currently the literacy curriculum in NYC public schools. They’ve changed a few things about it since the 80s–yet there’s still no formal grammar teaching–and now call it Writer’s Workshop. It’s awful. The reading counterpart isn’t too bad, but the writing approach truly churns out a lot of really bad work. Better teachers are obviously more successful with it, but it is not a program suitable for the majority.

    Lucy Calkins still hangs about, and I’ve been to a few of her workshops. TCers worship her, but I did my graduate work at City College and taught in a school under review in Washington Heights. Plus, I learned how to read and write from really scary nuns (an experience from which I will never fully recover). Whole language brainwashing failed on me.

  9. It worked for me while I was at TC for a couple of years, but it didn’t really jibe with my experiences teaching writing for 13 years before that and nothing afterward. Just the reverse, in fact. I know Lucy Calkins is behind the NYC public school curriculum, in spirit if not in fact.

    Lucy would tell the class how writers, when they got together, talked about their craft to each other all the time and she said how wonderful it must be at writers colonies like MacDowell to hear so much good talk about the craft of writing.

    I told her that in my experience as an author and a fellow at MacDowell and other colonies, when writers got together they usually complained about their publishers and gossipped about other writers. She didn’t want to hear that.

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